|Public Affairs Crisis
In A Multi-Service Atmosphere
very nature of the military services’ role in training and preparing for
war as it would indeed conduct war avails itself to the minimal of opportunities
for mishap. "Train as you fight" often involves the integration of forces
from sister services battling or flying alongside one another over foreign
soil. The planning required to conduct this training is equally as crucial
should a mishap turn into a crisis. Public affairs response to a crisis
in a multi-service environment overseas brings into perspective considerably
more interests than those typically involved in a service-unique incident.
While the disaster in the case
study led to an uproar across Italy (Public Affairs After Action Report,
1998), it was the aspect of communication response that fueled most criticism
by the media and public. E. W. Brody (1991) makes a clear distinction
between disasters and crises. He explains that "a disaster is an unfortunate
sudden and unexpected event. Disasters occur through carelessness, negligence,
or bad judgment. Disasters can create crises, but crises and disasters
are not identical" (p. 175). Brody further defines crises as a "decisive
turning point in a condition or state of affairs. Most important from a
communication standpoint, crises are not disasters. Disaster communication
and crisis communication differ because crises develop more slowly than
disasters and in relatively predictable fashion. Crises occur where issues
are neglected or otherwise mishandled. Crises produced by disasters should
not create surprises. Disasters may be unforeseen and unpredictable, but
resulting crises almost always can be anticipated" (Brody, 1991, pp. 175-176).
Steven Fink concurs that crises can be characterized as prodromal, or forewarning,
of events that may escalate in intensity (Guth, 1995).
research, however, describes the line between an incident and a crisis
as ambiguous at best. Definitions of a crisis also include characterizations
of "surprise, high threat to important values, and a short decision time,"
and "a major, unpredictable event that has potentially negative results"
(Guth, 1995, p. 124). Regardless, most research literature views "a crisis
as threatening the legitimacy of an industry, reversing the strategic mission
of an organization and disturbing the way people see the world and themselves"
(Guth, 1995, p. 124). For the purpose of this paper, the fact that a crisis
immediately ensues an incident or emergency is adopted and therefore requires
extensive planning prior to the occurrence of any incident.
proved to be the case with the EA-6B accident in Italy. The nearest Air
Force public affairs office at Aviano initially responded with very few
details to the unforeseen accident of the aircraft striking the support
cables of the gondola. In an age where communication can be instantaneous
the public affairs office was in an awkward situation; they were forced
to remain silent to reports and queries while national and international
press were reporting details they could not confirm. The chain of events—to
include not immediately accepting responsibility and expressing remorse;
the release of ambiguous information; and messages lost through interpretation—in
the days immediately following the incident developed into the communication
response crisis for the Marines and Air Force base involved. The absence
of definitive communication forms the nucleus of the crisis and is the
nature of the problem in that there is lack of clear guidance and sufficient
knowledge of sister service operations in order to properly communicate
messages that are clear, accurate and with one voice.
dependent variable, the level of success during multi-service crisis situations,
is affected to a great extent by the chain of events listed above. Lukaszewski
(1997) lists responsiveness as a strategic communication standard. He bases
this standard on the expectations of those affected. "The organization
interested in having an effective, consistent, positive ongoing relationship
with its constituencies must work within the framework of those constituencies’
expectations" (Lukaszewski, 1997, p. 8). Among his four communications
priorities are those directly affected, employees, those indirectly affected,
and the news media. He sets "the health, welfare, and safety of the people
most directly affected, our employees, and the protection, restoration,
and recovery of company operations" (Lukaszewski, 1997, p. 8) as the organization’s
first obligation and part of a standard-setting fundamental communication
responding public affairs office from Aviano had little contact with Marine
PA’s from the unit temporarily deployed to its base. Since the Marines
sent no full-time PA’s, intimate relationships were not formed. The
Air Force was able to speak in general terms about what the Marines were
doing there but had little else to offer the news media. The initial chain
of command for releasing follow-up information and coordinating media queries
was not clearly outlined until three days after the accident, according
to the Public Affairs After Action Report (1998). The services’ primary
obligation, according to Lukaszewski, should have been to the families
of the victims. That message of sympathy did not come until a press conference
by Marine Brigadier General Guy Vanderlinden two days after the incident
and well into the conception of the crisis response.
the respective services’ instructions and regulations provide guidance
on the release of information, the early actions by the responding public
affairs office may best be viewed as differentiation, according to Sellnow
and Ulmer (1995). Differentiation involves "those strategies which serve
the purpose of separating some fact, sentiment, object, or relationship
from some larger context within which the audience presently views the
attribute" (p. 139). In the case of the Marine incident in Italy, the larger
context involved intercultural sensitivities by a public that viewed the
U.S. government as separating itself from the fact that it was indeed responsible.
This was most evident at the press conference by General Vanderlinden when
a question by the media involved the flight path and route of the Marine
EA-6B. The response affirming that the pilot was over the correct route
contradicted statements by the Italian Minister of Defense and created
a national furor in the country, according to a Public Affairs After Action
hurt the credibility of the investigation as well as that of the forces
operating out of Italy. The releasing officials failed to "consider the
impact that information availability will have on (the) mission, and prepare
to address issues openly, honestly, and in a timely manner. Once information
is available, attempting to deny it or failing to acknowledge it will destroy
… credibility" (Field Manual 46-1, 1997, p. 18). Brody agrees that a "communicator’s
greatest asset in any effort—program, campaign, special event or crisis
response—is organizational credibility. With credibility, all things are
possible. Without credibility, little can be accomplished. Credibility
is a commodity gained over time and at great expense in effort and consistency.
Credibility is easily lost and, once lost, is doubly difficult to regain"
(1991, pp. 181-182).
the loss of credibility and the absence of a clear response plan, the services
fell back on what Gonzalez-Herrero and Pratt (1995) refer to as the third
step in their four-phase model of the crisis management process—the crisis.
"At this point, the company might have lost all proactive initiatives.
Should a crisis-response plan not exist or should the situation have been
mishandled, the organization’s response will have to be limited to reacting
to the event and to using contingency measures that may reduce any damage"
(Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1995, p. 27). The model’s steps include
issues management, planning-prevention, the crisis, and the post-crisis.
Foremost in the model are issues management and planning-prevention, both
absent in existing joint plans for a crisis and in the case study; establishing
that half the work involved in managing a crises should be accomplished
before a crisis occurs.
the issues management stage, organizations must look for trends or issues
that may affect them in the future, collect data on the issues and evaluate
them, and develop a strategy of communications to prevent a crisis or redirect
its course. (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1995). This stage is then followed
by planning-prevention, which incorporates information, warning, and internal
communications systems. "Planning is the bedrock of crisis management.
The idea at this point is to show that, when an issue is perceived to have
passed the limits of issues management, when it is recognized that a crisis
is imminent, or when an issue might change quickly in intensity, the organization
should use its information-gathering and warning systems to monitor it
carefully. At the same time, the company should brace itself for an imminent
crisis, just in case one hits" (Gonzalez-Herrero & Pratt, 1995, p.
and Traverso (1997) concur that "crisis management planning should be a
part of any business strategy. The question ‘Where are we vulnerable and
what can happen to us?’ can identify deficiencies and lead to strategic
thinking and creative ways of doing business" (p. 45). Dougherty (1992)
claims that "of key importance before developing a crisis communications
plan is first understanding your organization. Because, unless you truly
understand your organization, you won’t know whom you’ll need to address
in a crisis, what message you will want to communicate, nor will you be
able to assess the impact of a crisis on your organization" (p. 3). The
Aviano public affairs office’s lack of intimacy with the Marine operations
contributed to the deployed unit’s place in the base organizational structure
as unclear. Dougherty’s emphasis is also illustrated in the fact that it
took three days to establish a public affairs chain of command and mixed
messages had already adversely impacted the crisis.
well-established communication theories explains the type of communication
that needs to take place during a public affairs crisis in a multi-service
environment. The first is the structural-functional systems theory (Dunlop,
1958) which applies to organizational communication using chains of command
and information networks. Anxiety/uncertainty management theory (Gudykunst,
1995) applies to intercultural communication, addressing specifically how
reducing anxiety and uncertainty opens communication channels across groups
and facilitates understanding. Lastly, the diffusion of innovation
theory (Rogers, 1983) is used to show how information and ideas are disseminated
through communication channels and how, when used in planning, the application
of the theory can spread desired messages prior to crisis.
structural-functional systems theory explains how organizational communication
takes place based upon Dunlop's (1958) analysis. Dunlop referred
to the structure of a functioning system as being comprised of certain
actors, certain contexts, an ideology that binds the system together and
a body of rules created to govern the actors. Actors in a system are the
hierarchy of managers and their representatives in supervision, the hierarchy
of workers, and any spokesmen and specialized governmental agencies (Dunlop,
1958). The contexts of a system are the technological characteristics
of the organization, monetary factors, and the distribution of power between
a system and society. The ideology of a stable system would involve
the views held within the organization that are similar and working toward
a common goal. The body of rules refers consequences of achieving
the expected performance and the result of failure to achieve that of which
upon the scope of discussion, Dunlop (1958) described a system to be used
on occasion to refer to a subsystem of a larger system. A system
can be broken up into smaller units called subsystems or combined with
other systems to form larger suprasystems (Infante, Rancer, & Womack,
1997). When "… suprasystems and subsystems are interdependent [that]
leads to the systems property called nunsummativity. The whole system
is more than the sum of the contributions of each individual part" (p.
The structural-functional theory
is important to public affairs plans because it identifies information
flow in organizations as "networks" made up of members and "links".
Information in organizations flow in patterns called networks (Infante
et al.,1997). The micronetwork links individuals in the group.
The network along which messages are transmitted between groups in the
organization is the macronetwork. The macronetwork forms the organization's
overall communication structure. Networks consist of members and
links (communication ties) between members. The actors, contexts,
ideology, and rules can influence the information flow within the organization.
A change in one of these influential factors can have an effect upon the
anxiety/uncertainty management theory (AUM) developed by Gudykunst in 1995
is applied to intercultural communication. This theory suggests that
a culture tells us which type of methods of understanding allow us to predict
others' behavior, therefore reducing uncertainty in communication across
cultures. AUM is important to public affairs plans because it provides
guidelines in which certain perceptions and reactions of a host country
populous can be predicted in response to certain comments. When our anxiety
or uncertainty is too high, communication suffers.
Managing uncertainty and anxiety,
therefore, is a central process affecting our communication with strangers
(Gudykunst, 1995). Strangers, as described by Gudykunst, are members
of a different group, organization, culture, or country. A stranger
possesses the characteristics of that group, organization, culture or country
and can be near or far in distance when communicating.
other words, strangers represent both the idea of nearness in that they
are physically close and the idea of remoteness in that they have different
values and ways of doing things. Strangers are physically present
and participate in a situation and, at the same time, are outside the situation
because they are members of different groups (Gudykunst, 1995).
(1995) describes two types of uncertainty: predictive and explanatory.
Predictive uncertainty is the uncertainty involved in predicting a stranger's
behavioral pattern. Explanatory uncertainty is the uncertainty involved
in predicting a stranger’s reaction to certain types of information.
Both types of uncertainty are based upon a stranger’s attitudes, feelings,
beliefs, values, and behavior. Gudykunst also believes that emotional factors
must be considered. He considers anxiety to be the emotional equivalent
of cognitive uncertainty (Infante et al., 1997) and must be addressed along
with uncertainty to have positive results.
diffusion of innovation theory developed by Rogers in 1983 is applied to
communication channels and normally associated with mass communication.
Research dealing with diffusion examines how new ideas are spread among
groups of people. This theory centers on the ability of new information
to be accepted following dissemination via a variety of channels. Opinion
leaders, change agents and gatekeepers are included in the process of diffusion
through communication channels. Opinion leadership (Rogers, 1983)
is the degree to which an individual is able to influence other individuals'
attitudes or overt behavior informally in a desired way with relative frequency.
Change agents are those individuals who have the ability to influence opinion
leaders into adopting or rejecting an ideology deemed desirable.
"Gatekeeping is the communication behavior of an individual or individuals
who withhold or reshape information that they control as it flows into
their system" (p. 354).
diffusion theory is important to a public affairs plan because it provides
insight on how information can be effectively communicated and accepted
by the target audience. The essence of the diffusion process is the information
exchange, when an individual communicates a new idea to one or several
others. At its most elementary form, the process involves: (1) an
innovation, (2) an individual or other unit of adoption that has knowledge
of or experience with using the innovation, (3) another individual or other
unit that does not yet have knowledge of the innovation, and (4) a communication
channel connecting the two units. A communication channel is the
means by which messages get from one individual to another (Infante et
this project the independent variable of poor cross service crisis management
plans is operationalized on five levels: 1) Existing joint plans
for crisis situations: The amount and consistency of plans among the services
and their level of compatibility. The Air Force, for example, dedicates
one paragraph in its crisis management regulation to joint operations missing
most of the subjects discussed in this project (AFI 35-102, 1994).
By manipulating service plans a larger joint model may be developed.
2) Application of command structure during initial stages of a crisis:
The level of detail with which the crisis chain of command is spelled out
in advance. When the crisis occurs who becomes the one ultimately
responsible? Knowing what the command chain is prior to a crisis
makes accomplishing public affairs functions easier. 3) Acculturation
on an interpersonal level among public affairs professionals from different
services: Acculturation is represented by level with which the PA’s know
the general culture of the other service. An ability to work together in
a crisis hinges on how well key players can communicate internally before
communicating command messages externally. 4) Sensitivity to
the concerns and culture of the host nation: PA’s have to develop
a working knowledge or have quick access to the cultural dynamics of the
hosts or other foreign nations involved in the crisis. 5) Public
affairs involvement in operational planning: It is very important to maintain
a high level to which PA’s are allowed to participate in operational planning
and how well they are informed about missions. Responding well to
crisis depends, in large part, on how well the PA understands the nature
and scope of the mission and the subsequent problem. Knowing how
and why operations are planned makes information dissemination easier and
more clear. The levels discussed above are examined using current
literature available from military and academic sources and by using as
a case study details of the multi-service crisis involving the EA-6B disaster
success of the dependent variable is measured on three levels, each constituting
different forms of message success. The first variant is the speed
with which command messages are delivered following a crisis. According
to ten Berge (1990) the first 24 hours of a crisis are decisive because
external perceptions are quickly established. Ten Berge (1989) says
the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill is an example where lack of speed cost
an organization its good reputation. On March 24, 1989, the
tanker hit a submerged reef and spilled 240,000 barrels of
oil into the waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska. The media quickly
picked up the fact that this was the worst oil spill in the North American
hemisphere and that an intoxicated skipper and inept crew were the immediate
cause of the accident. Exxon, however, dragged its feet. Although
the response was quick considering travel time, it took 17 hours for the
president of Exxon Shipping to arrive in Alaska. The final damage
assessment showed the pollution of 1,500 miles of shoreline and dead wildlife,
including half a million birds. The battle to save the reputation was lost
in the beginning because Exxon did not take charge and provide a quick
response to the press.
clarity of the message is the second variant used to measure success in
this project. Lerbinger (1997) notes that many crisis plans stress
the need for one central spokesperson to communicate with the press and
public. It is also stressed that if management uses more than one
person the message should always be the same. The decision between
the two should be made based on the severity of the crisis, but a media-savvy,
high-level officer or corporate head is ideal.
ease with which a message is formulated and approved in an organization
is the third measurement of success. According to Ten Berge (1990)
the Tylenol product tampering case in 1982 is considered to be the most
exemplary case ever known in the history of crisis communication management.
Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson made sure the public’s safety
was their highest priority, followed by an effort to save the product.
During the course of this crisis, there appeared to be no alternative but
to provide truthful and factual information as quickly as possible.
By taking charge and assuming responsibility the company was able to handle
the media in an effective manner. Prior to the poisonings, Johnson
& Johnson did not actively seek press coverage. However, during
this crisis the company recognized the benefits of open communication and
used the opportunity to warn the public while at the same time getting
out key messages. The success that came of this crisis was due in
large part to the company credo of corporate responsibility and to open,
clear, and unfettered internal communication.